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Khyber Operation Seeks To Secure NATO Supply Route

Pakistani paramilitary soldiers lead a container loaded with supplies for NATO and U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, at the Pakistani border town of Jamrud last month.
Pakistan has launched a major operation against militants in the Khyber Pass who have been attacking supply lines to NATO and U.S. forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

Local officials say the main highway linking Peshawar to the border town of Torkham has been shut down until the operation, which began on December 30, is complete.

But local tribal leaders and national government officials are offering very different perspectives of Pakistan's latest military effort to root out militants, this time in the Khyber Pass.

Tariq Hayat, the administrator of the Khyber tribal district, says the security operation includes troops backed by helicopter gunships and artillery. So far, there are no reports on casualties as the entire region remains under curfew.

"Supplies to NATO forces will remain suspended until we clear the area of militants and outlaws who have gone out of control," Hayat told reporters in Peshawar.

Latif Afridi, an ethnic-Pashtun politician and tribal leader from the Khyber region, told RFE/RL that the security forces are now shelling some villages along the Khyber Pass with artillery.

But he questioned whether the operation could achieve a decisive victory over the militants.

"In my opinion this operation is being conducted to strengthen these [militant] elements and not to finish them off," Afridi said. "The authorities did very little to fight these elements when they were trickling into the region in groups of five, 10, and 20. But today their numbers are in the hundreds and they can close the major highway passing through the Khyber Pass."

Located west of Peshawar, Khyber is the most strategically significant tribal district among the seven tribal districts or agencies that collectively form the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghan border. It is also the main supply route for the more than 65,000 Western troops in Afghanistan.

This region was relatively peaceful until recently. But at the beginning of this year, local pro-Taliban militants groups -- particularly Lashkar-e Islam and Tanzeem Amar Bil Maroof Wa Nahi Aneelmunkar (Organization for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice) began launching attacks in Peshawar city. Those groups also reportedly provided shelter to foreign and Pakistani militants from other regions.

Some observers even feared that they could overrun Peshawar. Faced with that threat, the government responded last summer by launching an operation against the militants in Khyber.

Afridi, the tribal leader, told RFE/RL that the Khyber operation failed to curb militancy in the region. He said locals are now worried that they will ultimately suffer the brunt of the latest operation, since previous military attacks in the tribal areas and the Northwest Frontier Province achieved little -- with civilians often suffering the most.

"Unlike their public claims, this operation will not result in any significant damage and loss to the militants," Afridi said.

But Hayat, the political agent or administrator of the Khyber region, told reporters that the ongoing operation was targeted and aimed to avoid civilian casualties. However, he warned that security forces would not distinguish between the militants from other regions and their hosts among the Afridi tribe living in the Khyber Pass.

"It's very clear that we won't spare protectors or anyone who tries to give them shelter. We want to get rid of them and we mean business this time," he said.

with additional news agency reporting
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, the editor of RFE/RL's Gandhara website, is a journalist specializing in coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. ​